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My recent blogs have been exploring roots of masculine-feminine differences in nature and nurture. Our culture influences how little boys vs. little girls play—and we work very much like we play. So understanding differences in play can help us see and understand differences in masculine and feminine approaches to work. How little boys and girls play seems to me, more than a matter of nurture. It seems also to be a product of the brain structure and hormonal differences we have reviewed.

According to experts (Dr. Baron-Cohen, Dr. Pat Heim and Janet Lever, for example) little boys and girls play differently. We don’t need experts to observe this. Young boys play sports, cops and robbers or cowboys, war. Their games take up more space, involve more players and rules, and result in more skirmishes. They play more aggressively. Little boys play “in parallel,” each doing his own thing without communicating much with the others. Their games involve rank or hierarchy; who is to be “alpha” is decided up front.

Since Title IX became law in 1972, girls have participated more and more in team sports, giving them more experience competing, winning, and losing. But little girls also play just as they did before Title IX. Experts say girls tend to play in smaller groups and that their games take up less space and involve fewer rules. Girls’ pretend play is about care-giving and nurturing. Rather than playing in parallel, their play is coordinated; they report to one another on what they are doing. There is little or no hierarchy—no boss of dolls or hopscotch!

The table below summarizes how the average little boy (Max) and the average little girl (Fran) play: (If you don’t know about Max and Fran, see this post.)



Games involve competition Relationships trump winning
Rules are critical Relationships top rules
Play involves conflict Play involves avoiding conflict
Games require aggression Games require taking turns, sharing
Play is goal focused Play is process focused
Goal is to win Goal is a win-win outcome
Games involve hierarchy Play involves “flat” power structure


Have you seen these differences in children? Have you seen these differences show up in how men and women work?